Using Apple Notes

Like a lot of people, I like having a place to keep piles of text notes. For years I’ve solved this problem with nvALT and a rotating group of iOS apps that work with Dropbox-based text files. About a year ago, I decided to start looking at other options. This was not out of some dissatisfaction with nvALT but instead but my insatiable nerd-curiosity. So I went on a notes spirit quest for several months including tours of duty in SimpleNote, Evernote, and several other options that ultimately led me back to nvALT. The funny thing about that experiment is that one app I never considered as a potential replacement was Apple Notes and all of its Marker Felt glory. Then WWDC rolled around and one of Apple’s big new announcements was an all new Notes app. I was in the betas. I had just finished one notes app experiment so I figured … "why not?". I started using Notes in August and we are now sneaking up on January and I find myself still using Notes. Trust me; I’m as surprised as you are. So here’s a few notes on … well … Notes.

Things I Like About Notes

Syncing Works

Syncing in the old version of Notes always felt like a crap shoot. It used an IMAP protocol and felt (and acted) like a bit of a hack. With the new version, syncing is much improved. I’ve currently got over 300 notes and the list is growing. Some of them are a few lines of text. Others are full of pictures, files, and links. It's also fast. Out of curiosity, while writing this I got out my iPad Air, which has spent the last week on a shelf, and fired up Notes. It was up to date in seconds. It’s sad that I need to even mention this but I’ve had no syncing errors and lost no Notes despite now running the app on four devices.

Rich Text and Attachments

If I just wanted to have plain text notes, nvALT is probably still the winner. However, one of the reasons I started looking for alternatives was because I’m finding I'd like to do a bit more and Apple Notes does that. I'm increasingly finding excuses to put pictures in notes. I'm also throwing word processing documents and other files. Everything is syncing just fine. I also really like the checklists and bullets. They're easy to add, attractive, and useful.

Adding a little formatting is nice. That does, however, come at a price. My nvALT text notes are timeless. I'm certain my grandchildren's grandchildren will be able to open a text file. I'm not so certain they'll be able to get at my Apple Notes data. I've been conscious of this as I've been adding new notes to the database. Anything that I want to be really long-term, I'm addressing differently or at least exporting as a plain text when appropriate. There’s also an app linked below that can mass-export your Notes to text files.

Notes as an Everything Bucket

While comparisons to Evernote are obvious, the applications are very different. Evernote definitely has more features and better sharing as an everything bucket but it hardly feels native to the Mac and iOS. Evernote, and its desire to be everything to everyone, gets a little rough around the edges. I think the more appropriate comparison for Notes is to Yojimbo. Notes is a native Mac and iOS app that also syncs its data on the cloud. That was something that we never quite got out of Yojimbo. Apple Notes is cleaner and, in my opinion, generally a better experience overall for Mac and iOS users. Moreover, because it's an Apple product, it's got hooks all over the Mac and IOS operating systems making it seriously easy to put data inside it.


Now that I've got an iPad pro, I also find myself adding sketches to notes. That's something I haven't done for a long time and it's really useful.

Things I don’t Like About Notes

That Ridiculously Small Mac Font

It’s completely nuts to me how they shipped the Mac app with both that tiny default font and no way to change it to something larger. You can increase the font size in individual notes but nothing across the board. It’s like someone at Apple thought, “I’m 24 years old and I can read the tiny font just fine. If anyone else can’t, screw em’.” I was hoping that by now they’d have shipped an update that lets me fix this but no luck. Strangely, this is not an issue on the iPad or iPhone where the default font size is larger and entirely readable.

Duplicating Notes

There is no way to easily duplicate a note. Quite often I will use an existing note as a jumping off point for a new one. The only way to do that now is to physically copy the contents of the note, create a new note, and then paste those content. Not exactly convenient.

Note Organization

The Notes application will sort your notes any way you like, so long as you only like them sorted by modification date with the most recently modified note always at the top. This generally is the best way to sort notes and my preferred method. However, once in a while I would like to sort them in different ways, like alphabetically. That's not possible here. Searching your Notes (Option-Command-F on the Mac) helps but still I wish we could decide for ourselves how Notes organizes its data.

A Few Hacks I’ve Picked Up Along the Way

Text Formatting Shortcuts

There is a series of keyboard shortcuts for text formatting. Once you get them under your fingers, they speed up text formatting on the Mac nicely:

Shift-Command-T - Title

Shift-Command-H - Heading

Shift-Command-B - Body

Shift-Command-L - Checklist


Notes supports folders, which is a convenient one-dimensional form of organization. It has no support, however, for tags. With the inclusion of tags in iOS last year, I was hoping that would become a "thing". However, my hopes appear to be dashed. We saw very little support for tags in iOS 9. Notes was a golden opportunity for Apple to jump on their own tagging bandwagon but, alas, they did not. If you're going to tag notes, you'll have to make homegrown tags. I suggest using the hashtag (e.g., #grocery) and putting them in at the bottom of your notes. The searching feature will sniff them out for you.

Moving in from Evernote

If you've got a lot of notes in Evernote that you'd like to put in Notes, use Larry Salibra's script. I've moved great big piles of text out of Evernote into Notes this way with no trouble at all.

Yanking Text out of Notes

You can always block and copy individual notes into a text file but if you’d like to copy all of your Notes out into individual text files, there’s a Mac app for that called Notes Exporter.

Am I Sticking With It?

So throughout this test drive I've been putting off deciding whether or not I'll stick with Notes or not. However, after six months I've come to realize that the decision has already been made. The fact that I haven’t abandoned Notes after this long answers the question. I'm sticking with Notes.